Dr. James Barry was actually born Margaret Ann Bulkley around 1789 in County Cork, Ireland, at a time when women were barred from most formal education and certainly not allowed to practice medicine. . She was the second daughter of Jeremiah (a grocer) and Mary-Ann Bulky. When she was still a teenager, Margaret is believed to have been raped by her uncle. She gave birth to a baby girl, Juliana, who was raised by her mother.
Margaret was interested in getting an education and doing something beyond the realm of what was allowed for her gender. In the 2016 book, James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, authors Dr. michael du preez and jeremy dronfield tell a story of when margaret was 18 years old, where she openly berated her wasteful brother saying, “if she weren’t a girl, she’d be a soldier.” and a soldier would be.
When her family fell on hard times, Margaret (who was in her late teens) moved with her mother to London, where Mary Ann had a brother: James Barry, a royal academic and painter. The two women met Barry’s friends, including the exiled Venezuelan General Francisco de Miranda and David Steuart Erskine, the Earl of Buchan. They were impressed by the young Margaret, knowing that her intelligence could lead them away from her. They likely played a role in devising the plan for Margaret to pursue an education and specifically a career in medicine. The original James Barry died in 1806, leaving his sister and his niece enough money to establish them, and his name on the line.
three years later, margaret bulkley was no more. Dressed in a coat (worn at all times regardless of the weather), 3-inch-tall shoe insoles, and a distinctive high-pitched voice, Margaret now identified herself as James Barry. Moving to Edinburgh, young Barry enrolled in medical school in 1809 and re-aged him to match his youthful, youthful appearance. Rumors flew, as Barry’s short stature, loud voice, slim build, and smooth skin caused many people to suspect that he was too young a kid to be in med school, but Barry never really broke down. When Barry wasn’t allowed to take his exams because they suspected he was too young, Lord Erskine intervened. the future doctor received a medical degree at the age of 22. Barry enlisted in the Army as a Surgeon’s Assistant where his age was once again questioned, but he was eventually allowed to serve.
barry began his military career on july 6, 1813, as a hospital attendant in the british army, and was soon promoted to assistant surgeon, equivalent to lieutenant. he then served in cape town, south africa, for 10 years, where he befriended the governor, lord charles somerset. Some believe that Somerset knew about Barry’s secret. the two became close and barry moved into a private apartment in his residence. Rumors circulated about the nature of their relationship, and an anonymous accuser posted a sign claiming that Somerset was “fucking up Dr. Barry.” commissions were created to investigate the scandal, but both parties were later exonerated.
Perhaps to adopt a more stereotypical, brash masculine persona, or perhaps because it was actually his true nature, Barry was known for his short temper. Patients, superiors, army captains, and even Florence Nightingale herself were on the receiving end of his wrath. she knocked over vials of medicine and even engaged in a duel, where luckily neither party was seriously injured.
Barry’s medical skills were unprecedented. he was a highly skilled surgeon, the first to perform a successful caesarean section in which both mother and child survived. he also dedicated himself to social reform, denouncing the unsanitary conditions and mismanagement of barracks, prisons, and asylums. during his 10-year tenure, he fixed a better water system for cape town. As a physician, he treated rich and poor, colonists and slaves.
Barry’s next posting was in Mauritius in 1828, where he clashed with a fellow army surgeon who arrested him and court-martialed him on charges of “conduct unbecoming of the character of an officer and a gentleman.” he was found not guilty. Barry moved where his service was needed, continuing to rise through the ranks as he traveled the world. in 1857 he reached the rank of inspector general in charge of military hospitals, equivalent to brigadier general. In that role, he continued his fight for proper sanitation, also advocating for better nutrition and proper medical care for prisoners and lepers, as well as for soldiers and their families.
dr. James Barry died of dysentery on July 25, 1865. It is said that on his deathbed his acquaintances waited for a secret to be revealed; some said they had guessed it all along. Barry’s last wishes were to be buried in the clothes he died in, without washing his body, wishes that were not fulfilled. When the nurse undressed the body to prepare it for burial, she discovered two things: female anatomy and telltale stretch marks.
The secret was made public after an exchange of letters between the General Record Office and Barry’s physician, Major D. r. mckinnon, leaked. In these letters, Major McKinnon, who signed the death certificate, said it was “none of my business” if Dr. James Barry was male or female, a statement Barry himself would likely have agreed with.
dr. James Barry is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in North West London. one thing is for sure, dr. James Barry was far ahead of his time, both as a doctor and a humanitarian.